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The Lure of Simplicity: Why We Choose to Live with Less in a World of Excess

How to reside a month with 1,000 yuan in major metropolises like Beijing and Shanghai? On virtual social platforms, a cohort of youthful individuals ardently embrace this frugality challenge. They assemble in small clusters, proclaiming themselves as “parsimonious gentlemen and ladies” and jestingly asserting that they are “exhaustively economizing.” They exchange diverse strategies for economizing: how to procure a lunch for a mere 3 yuan, how to extend the utility of a bottle of shower gel for an entire year, how to save 3,000 yuan monthly on a 4,000 yuan salary, and so forth.

When confronted with a post of this nature, would you be astonished or captivated? Throughout the annals of history, humanity has consistently lauded simplicity as a virtue and a resplendent mode of existence. Yan Hui’s famous axiom, “one basket of food, one ladle of drink,” is renowned among the Chinese populace. In Western societies as well, frugality and simplicity have garnered immense acclaim from myriad thinkers. Yet, why is simplicity deemed admirable while opulence is deemed a moral blemish?

Within the book titled “The Philosophy of Simplicity,” American philosopher Professor Emery Westcott enumerates the perspectives and associated discourses on “simplicity” within the realm of Western philosophy. Frugality has been adorned with numerous exquisite epithets by both domestic and foreign luminaries throughout antiquity and modernity. As posited by Emery, this inclination likely stems from moral and self-interest considerations.

You may be familiar with the tale of Diogenes. According to legend, the ancient Greek philosopher, inspired by rats, resided year-round within a barrel, employing two cloaks as his bedding. He professed an affinity for imbibing the libations of others, even discarding his own cup when he observed a child cupping water with their hands. This exemplified the epitome of a “life of minimal desires.” When Alexander paid a visit to the barrel, Diogenes uttered the famous retort: “Do not obstruct my sunlight.” Subsequent generations hailed his ability to curtail materialistic demands, enabling him to eschew temptation and the perils of moral decline.

A life of simplicity has consistently been regarded as a breeding ground for fostering virtuous traits. A television program once aired nationwide titled “Metamorphosis,” which garnered immense popularity. Viewers eagerly anticipated witnessing urban “delinquent boys” undergo a transformation in the countryside, though simultaneously harbored concerns that the “rural children” might succumb to the allure of the vibrant city life. Subconsciously, people have always believed that poverty engenders noble qualities, while wealth engenders moral turpitude.

Indeed, simplicity boasts numerous overt advantages. Flying first class on an airplane, sojourning in a five-star hotel, and indulging in extravagant seafood dinners epitomize tourism, whereas embarking on a train journey, patronizing Haidilao, and relishing street-side barbecues also constitute tourism. The “special forces tour” for university students not only allows for financial savings but also avoids deferring gratification.

In this world, temptations abound, often proving arduous to resist, akin to the ubiquitous online catchphrase “just buy it.” Exercising frugality is no facile task, yet cultivating the capacity for frugality early on may provide a form of safeguard. Should life encounter adversity, its impact need not be excessively dire.

The renowned American writer Thoreau embarked on a personal experiment. He constructed a petite cabin on the shores of Walden Pond and retreated into seclusion for two years, subsisting on self-sustained sustenance and leading a life that was simple and intimately connected with nature. Thoreau’s work, “Walden,” remains a bestseller to this day. In contemporary society, people yearn for Thoreau’s idyllic and poetic existence, distanced from the clamor of crowds and the strife of disputes, devoid of mobile phones and computers, characterized by minimal social interactions, and free from the perils of comparison.

However, yearning merely remains a sentiment. Few individuals have truly experienced such a life. For the majority, happiness appears to be intertwined with profligacy more effortlessly.

Some may earnestly argue that if everyone lived as “parsimonious gentlemen and ladies,” society would be deprived of progress. On an individual level, wealth has always wielded a natural allure, evoking notions of leisure, freedom, and gratification. We may critique ostentatious displays of affluence on the internet, yet it is exceedingly challenging to resist the allure of experiencing a life of opulence. A young individual striving to save money may forgo a takeout meal, only to find themselves immobilized upon encountering a “scratch ticket.”

The happiness associated with wealth is often intertwined with consumption, the notion that “you can procure whatever your heart desires.” E-commerce platforms launch shopping festivals, extended with enticing discounts and promotions, presenting innumerable avenues for indulging in purchases. Even while remaining at home, one’s wallet is inevitably depleted. There are always individuals meticulously endeavoring to stoke desires and persuading you that a normal existence is unattainable without their products. Had Thoreau been born in the digital age, he might have become acquainted with the delivery person at Walden Pond—truth be told, during his time at Walden Pond, Thoreau frequently dined at the homes of friends, hardly isolating himself from society.

Nevertheless, this does not imply that a life of simplicity is unattainable, nor does it hinder us from appreciating Thoreau’s chosen lifestyle. Simplicity can be an intentional life choice, devoid of the need to mimic Thoreau explicitly. As for the “money-saving challenge,” some individuals save small sums with the goal of amassing a larger one.

We embrace consumption as a means to stimulate domestic demand, yet we adamantly refuse to be ensnared by consumerism. The crux of simplicity lies in selecting a lifestyle that resonates with one’s own essence. The Douban group “Stingy Men’s Association” proudly proclaims: “We are parsimonious not because we are destitute, but because we choose to be.” In the eyes of its over 100,000 members, “parsimony” is an attitude—a commitment to refrain from squandering a single penny unnecessarily. When young people “cycle to the bar” or “take the bus to attend a concert,” they are manifesting their personal philosophies of life. As posited by the author of “The Philosophy of Simplicity,” the crux lies in maintaining the capacity and willingness to invest in a low-cost existence.